The U.K. Has Always Been Inhospitable — Brexit Is Only The Latest Example

By Parvati T.

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Until last week, my official policy on Brexit was to strenuously ignore the possibility. It now appears this was a strategy shared by many pro-Brexit voters. But for me, it sprang from a helpless wish not to acknowledge what I already knew from experience: that the U.K. is suspicious of “outsiders,” especially ones who aren’t white.

My relationship to the U.K. is complicated, painful, and long-distance. These days, when people ask me about it, I attribute my concern and love for the country to the fact that my partner is a British citizen. It’s an easy reply and it is also partly true. But I only met him three months before I left the U.K. We met in my last year of university, began our relationship, and then I left to return to Delhi.

Before that, I lived in a university town in England for almost four years. And I know that those years have made me most of who I am. I remember my life in England as a succession of long discussions on philosophy, history, art and literature. I remember the long walks in London, the happy quarrels with friends at the Matisse exhibition at the Tate, the sheer joy of waking up in the morning, nearly every day for four years, knowing it would be cloudy, breezy and quiet outside. And above all, I remember my friends, my professors, and especially random kind strangers on trains who used to help out a tiny woman with a giant suitcase every time I went back. When I came back to India last year, it was the predictable kindness of English strangers that I missed the most. But the government is another matter.

A few weeks back, I applied for a U.K. tourist visa to go visit my partner and friends. “Standard visitor” was the official category. That, in itself, was a bit jarring; it was strange to be anonymized after four years of feeling that England was my home. But I know I can’t really expect bureaucratic procedures to reflect the sheer force of memory and the sense of belonging that accompany my thoughts about the U.K. So I went ahead and filled out the “standard” form.

I kept the fact that I would spending a week with my boyfriend out of it. I simply listed him a friend who was to be my main contact and host. Since then, I have been warned about the risk of listing a single British male as your host when you are a female, non-white visitor, even if you don’t specify any sort of romantic relationship. But what else could I have done? My plans were still being made — two of my friends were still planning their own trips to the U.K. to see me. Though they were both U.K. citizens, they couldn’t be my hosts; one of them lives in Paris, the other in Hamburg. (Besides, they are both unmarried British men, too.) Another friend was rearranging her own vacation plans to Scotland. I was touched by the efforts they were making to spend time with me, but none of it would help me complete my form.

So instead, I wrote the dates of my trips, my payslips from where I work (compulsory), and gave a detailed history of immigration. I have been to at least three other countries during my undergrad years, and got out of them in good time before visa expiry. All written, all attested with the visas on my passports.

I didn’t think I had to worry. I have a funded Ph.D. from an American university, and my visa for the next five years is already on my passport. The most cursory inspection would have shown that staying on illegally in the U.K. was simply not an option for me. At the counter of the VFS application centre, I explained everything to the man who took my documents. “I don’t have much. Just my photo, payslips, and form. Everything else is kind of given because of the passport. Is that okay?” He nodded and put my passport into a folder. I asked again, “I don’t need to print off anything else, right?” He smiled, “Nope. And I don’t need your photo. You will go through biometric scans in a minute.”

I came back out into the sweltering Delhi afternoon. Job done.

On June 22, the day before the results of the Brexit referendum came out, I went to collect the passport. The decision, as always, was not disclosed. The mail from the U.K. Embassy simply said my passport was ready and could be picked up at the offices of VFS Global, Ltd. — the private agency that now handles the U.K.’s visa process.

You can probably tell where this is going: my application was rejected. Not only that, but the rejection worded in language so nakedly classist it was almost hilarious. But before I talk about that, I want to go back to VFS Global, Ltd. Because this is actually quite extraordinary.

Despite borders and immigration being arguably the main concern behind the Brexit debate, the U.K. government has outsourced its visa applications to a private company. Even the USA, the homeland of private industry, handles its own visa applications within the government. But the UK has outsourced this important function, not just to a private agency, but to a private agency with a fallible security system, which previously accidentally exposed the details of 50,000 applications on its website. Yet British citizens continue to focus their paranoia on immigrants and the EU.

Who is VFS Global, anyway? Google it: you’ll find that the company’s own material dominates the search results. If you scroll down far enough, though, you will see its Wikipedia page. It is a “technology services firm,” and handles visa applications for almost all of Europe as well as a bunch of countries in Asia. The CEO is an Indian man, the company is based in Switzerland, and it is a subsidiary of the KUONI group. Other than that, very little is known about VFS Global’s operational and audit structure.

I have interacted with VFS before, in London. Located as a place called the Battleship Building, it is inordinately inaccessible. I was once half-an-hour late for my visa appointment, simply because I could not find it, even though my friend and I had a smartphone and she was a Londoner. Others I have spoken to have narrated more worrying tales of racism from the staff, lack of assistance, and long queues.

Unsurprisingly, it is the same in Delhi. The VFS application centre is once again tucked away on a mezzanine floor inside a Metro station — as hard to find as it was in London. As I collected my passport, it looked even more Orwellian than it had before. Colored lines led to counters for each country. I’d been so nervous when I submitted my forms that I’d barely looked around, but this time, little details struck me: the overpricing of simple services like printing and photocopying, the anonymity of the staff, the frankly nauseous ads about experiencing the “ethnic food” of the client countries. A sealed packet was eventually handed to me. I could not open it there: I could only sign, receive, and leave. It was only after coming out of the office that I was able to read the rejection letter.

“In order to assess your intention in the UK I must consider your personal and financial circumstances in India,” it read. “You have stated you are employed by xxxxx and have a monthly income of xxxxx. As evidence of your financial circumstances you have submitted 6 payslips…You have not submitted any personal bank statements or any other documents to provide satisfactory evidence of your personal and financial circumstances in India.”

Presumably, my wages (average by Indian standards) were too low for me to be trusted not to stay on illegally.

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The other reason includes a lack of written invitation from my friends “to show that they can and will provide support and accommodation for the intended duration of your stay.” I wondered what that would look like. One friend calls me a teasing pet name derived from a kind of dip; another uses a dozen emojis and GIFs. Their invitations, made on Facebook and Whatsapp calls, were perfectly clear and sincere to me, but would be unlikely to convince an impersonal, unknown, and unnamed judge.

The rejection comes from someone calling themselves “I.” Other than this, I have no idea who they are. There was no interview, no phone call asking for more documents, no scope for dispute during collection.

I was told, in essence, that I was too poor to be trusted to enter the U.K., even as a visitor with documented reasons not to stay. This is classist to begin with. But even more humiliating is the fact that this metric of wealth applies to me only because I am an Indian citizen. Before Brexit, I could have walked into the country as an EU citizen without being vetted. And as we speak, millions of British citizens travel to most countries every year simply on the basis of their passport. Visas are seldom necessary for short visits.

Yet I have no option but to reapply, paying thousands of rupees again.

My experience made waking up to Brexit the following day even more hard-hitting and real. But even as I tried to console my heartbroken partner, who is worn down by constantly finding his Britain demolished by conservative politics, it struck me: while it is terribly unfair that people from EU will now have to face suspicion and discrimination in England, it’s also true that those outside of Europe have been fielding this shit for a while. This tragedy of racism, classism, and xenophobia is nothing new for those refugees, immigrants, and visitors to the U.K. who come from the rest of the world. In fact, ironically, England’s former colonies, which have contributed so much to its economy, culture, institutions, and labor force, are among the most mistreated.

The Brexit is a shameful chapter in U.K. history. Barely a day after the result was declared, videos, news sources, and eyewitness accounts described vile incidents of verbal and physical xenophobic violence. Even as Boris Johnson is booed off in London, lives are going to change for worse for the European citizens working in England, and my friends, who are British nationals and live in Europe.

But, as a dubiously categorized “Commonwealth citizen” who loved the shit of this country, it strikes me that the Brexit is just a symptom of the maladies that are seething underneath. U.K.’s borders are increasingly guarded by monetary greed, mistrust, and unapologetic racism. They always have been. That greed and racism now has the force of a referendum behind it. Nothing else has changed.

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Lead image: Joel Kramer/flickr

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